It comes as no news flash: COVID-19 sucks. Anyone planning a trip to Pebble, St Andrews or other bucket list destinations is feeling the pain. Quarantines, visitor guidelines and capacity restrictions are doing a number on all travel, not just golf. For this edition of MyGolfSpy Experiences, we decided to profile what amounts to a drivable par-4: a COVID-19 golf trip to a nearby destination.
This piece is not meant to be any sort of political statement on the pandemic nor will politically focused comments be tolerated. That’s not what we or this piece are about. We simply want to share some of the things you may need to know when planning a COVID-19 golf trip as well as identify some of the challenges faced by golf courses and resorts.
We learned plenty during the process. Some of it was quite surprising.
Where To Go?
While air travel is most certainly doable, we chose to stay within driving distance for our COVID-19 golf trip. I live near the New Hampshire seacoast and Mike, my partner for this trip, is from New York City. We chose Stowe, Vt., in the heart of the Green Mountains: a five-hour drive for Mike, 3 1/2 for me.
“People are still very wary of traveling,” says Scott McIntosh, Director of Sales and Marketing at Stowe’s Topnotch Resort. “Vermont is one of the lowest states for COVID so we’ve had restrictions placed on travelers coming in from out of state.”
Specifically, if you drive from a county with a COVID rate below 400 cases per million people, you may come and go as you please. Between 400 and 700 cases per million, you’ll need to either quarantine for 14 days or combine a seven-day quarantine with a negative COVID test. More than 800 cases? Stay home.
At the time of the trip, my county in New Hampshire was below 400 per million (it’s not now). Mike’s county was in the 400 to 799 per million range so he chose a seven-day quarantine and a COVID test.
Interestingly, Mike did not have to show proof of his COVID test. The entire system is honor-based. We did need to show our IDs while checking in at Topnotch but all we had to do was fill out an affidavit confirming we were either from an area below the limits or that we did self-quarantine and follow the guidelines.
Vermont’s travel website is updated weekly and there are counties that are considered no-go zones.
“That’s our basis for telling a guest whether they can come or not,” says McIntosh. “We can pick another date or refund their money with no penalty.”
Green Mountains Majesty
If you want to get somewhere in a hurry in Vermont, my advice is don’t. First, you don’t want to miss any of the scenery. And second, to quote the old punchline, “you can’t get there from here.” Unless you’re on Interstate 89 or 91, it’s all side roads, back roads, and a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit.
Our first stop was Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, VT. Killington is the largest ski area in the East. As a younger man, I spent many a winter weekend there hitting the slopes and trying (and failing, mostly) to impress girls.
The Green Mountains aren’t the Rockies but they’re no speed bumps, either. And if you like mountain golf, you’ll enjoy Green Mountain National. You’ll find plenty of blind shots (the second hole features an electronic signal telling you it’s OK to tee off), lots of elevation changes and spectacular mountain views. It’s a fun and challenging course. You’ll also find some of the most polite golfers you’ll ever meet, as a foursome let our threesome play through on the 18th fairway.
Vermont’s biggest industry is tourism and while COVID has affected hotels, resorts and restaurants, golf courses seem to be doing just fine.
“We’ve been busier than last year,” Head Professional Dave Bowyer told us. “Lots of people have second homes in Killington but we never see them in the summer. This year it’s different. We’re not seeing the person that would come up for four or five days. We are seeing people who come up here and stay.”
“People who have been just winter visitors now just want to get out of New York or Boston to what is perceived to be safe,” adds McIntosh. “We’ve seen a lot of long-term rentals where people have come up for three months at a time.”
After checking in at Topnotch, we enjoyed dinner at The Roost, the one resort restaurant that was open. The menu was a compilation of the finer dining of the resort’s more formal restaurant and the informal bar food offering at The Roost.
Mike enjoyed a fine salmon dinner while I opted for a superb saffron risotto. We were both away from our wives so we indulged with dessert – a fudge brownie with vanilla ice cream and a glob of peanut butter for me and apple pie a la mode for Mike. Several thumbs up from both of us.
Another surprise was the fact the resort itself seemed about half full. That’s because it was. By design.
“We’re at about 50-percent capacity [as per state mandates],” says McIntosh. “Last year, were running close to 100-percent occupancy for July and August. Typically, those are our busiest months, followed by fall foliage season and weekends in the winter.”
Another thing we learned about Vermont during our COVID-19 golf trip is nothing opens much before 8 a.m.. If you want coffee or an early breakfast, good luck. The rooms at Topnotch do not have coffeemakers and there was no coffee available until the restaurant opened for breakfast at 8. Apparently this wasn’t unique to Topnotch and isn’t COVID-related. The earliest tee time at The Mountain Course at Spruce Peak was also at 8. We arrived just as the first staff member was unlocking the doors at 7:30. He was kind enough to brew us up some java to kickstart our metabolisms.
The Hills Are Alive…
Next up was the Country Club of Vermont in Waterbury. The Country Club of Vermont is private so getting on may take some finagling.
The front nine is linksy, minus the ocean or sand. The back nine is more typical mountain golf: elevation changes on steroids and lots more trees. Still, it’s not overly long with generous fairways and nasty, multi-tiered greens that’ll leave you muttering to yourself.
A short par-5 from CCV is every ice cream lover’s Mecca: the Ben and Jerry’s factory. Yeah, it’s touristy, but it’s not completely kitschy, plus the ice cream is as fresh from the cow as you can get. Factory tours are a COVID casualty but there’s a playground for kids, a souvenir kiosk and the ice cream stand.
Another Stowe highlight is the Trapp Family Lodge. The Von Trapps were a family of singing Austrians made famous in the movie The Sound of Music. After fleeing the Nazis, the Von Trapps came to Vermont and hand-built a hilltop ski lodge. After the movie, it became a tourist attraction.
The original lodge burned down in 1980. The new lodge opened in 1983 with rental villas added later. The gift shop offers Sound of Music DVDs and CDs as well as books about the family and their experiences as well as assorted doodads with the Von Trapp family crest if you’re into that sort of thing.
There’s also the Von Trapp Brewery and Bierhall which came highly recommended from all of our Stowe area contacts. Neither Mike nor I are drinkers so we’ll have to take their word for it. Either way, the trip to the top of the hill is, as is most of the scenery in the Stowe area, breathtaking.
The Final 36
We went for the gusto the last day of our COVID-19 golf trip: 18 holes at The Mountain Course at Spruce Peak and another 18 at its sister course, the Stowe Country Club.
As beautiful as the Country Club of Vermont is, the Mountain Course is spectacular. If you want elevation changes, you got ‘em at the Mountain Course as it’s literally cut into the side of the mountain.
That said, it’s a quirky golf course. Check your ego at the door and play the whites. It’s only 5,400 yards but trust us, it’s plenty. Accuracy is critical because if you’re not in the fairway, you’re either in the woods or off a cliff. I mostly used a 21-degree Wilson Staff Model utility iron off the tee to stay in play. It mostly worked.
A hand-held GPS or phone app is invaluable. The course requires a ton of blind shots – either uphill or downhill – and the slightest miss will result in the severest penalty. Also, I don’t care if you’re within a foot of the cup, there are NO straight putts on The Mountain Course.
The Mountain Course is part of the Spruce Peak ski resort and is private for members and resort guests.
Our final 18 was at the Stowe Country Club. Both Mike and I considered this to be the most “normal” course we played; it could have been anywhere. Yes, there are mountains in the background but the terrain is gentle and the course is eminently walkable. It’s semi-private and isn’t as magnificent as the others we played but it is fun and a perfect way to wind down a vacation. If you’re going to play both, it’s definitely best to play the Stowe Country Club last.
Half-Empty or Half-Full?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about our COVID-19 golf trip was, thanks to the pandemic, Stowe felt simultaneously empty and crowded. Roughly half the normal number of visitors were in town but, with everything at 50-percent capacity, it still felt busy. Dinner reservations, we learned, are a must.
“All the major resorts here in Stowe are struggling,” says Tim Eldridge, General Manager at the Lodge at Spruce Peak. “I don’t know of any hotel in Stowe that’s actually at 50-percent capacity. Vermont in general has some of the strictest travel restrictions in the entire country. We’re taking those very seriously and in a lot of cases some of our own policies are even more strict than what the state requires.”
As a result, there are some deals to be had. Spruce Peak has a stay-and-play program it’s calling Summer in the Penthouse
“Those are two-, three- or four-bedroom luxury units on the upper floors at the Lodge,” says Michael Harger, Spruce Peak’s Director of Golf and Member Services. “You can get a four-bedroom suite with four rounds of golf per day and a $100 daily food and beverage credit starting at around $600. That’s resonated with the regional crowd and we’re seeing people coming up here to play golf.”
As with Topnotch, Spruce Peak is seeing less transient and group business but is seeing more long-term stays.
“In early to mid-April, every single family we have from the core of New York was living here permanently,” says Harger. “They had no desire to go back home.”
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Depending on your age or disposition, that bucket list trip to Pebble, Bandon or Streamsong probably isn’t in the cards for the remainder of 2020. After a lockdown and a quarantine, it’s understandable that traveling golfers would start getting a little itchy. A quick road trip, therefore, might be just the ticket to scratch that itch.
If you choose to go, here’s a quick checklist of things to consider:
- Wherever you choose to go, check that state’s travel guidelines. Different states have different restrictions so it’s best to know before you go.
- If your destination requires a COVID test, give yourself plenty of time. Mike’s results took two weeks, coming back the morning he left for Vermont.
- Most everywhere we went required masks indoors so bring your “gamer” and a backup.
- Hand sanitizer is everywhere but it won’t hurt to bring your own.
- Plan ahead for dinner – if you’re going somewhere this fall that is still limiting capacity to 50 percent, you will need reservations.
- This thing has been particularly tough on wait staff, bartenders and housekeeping so tip generously if you can.
- And, lastly, be safe out there.
Where you live may be different but tee times here in New England are a pretty hot commodity. Finding tee times a few days in advance is tough enough but finding something the same day? Fuggedaboudit. Stats from the National Golf Foundation indicate this is a nationwide trend, with rounds played in July up 14 percent over last year. What’s more, junior golf participation is up more than 20 percent – the biggest jump since Tiger-mania in 1998. Those kids who would normally play soccer, lacrosse or baseball need something to do.
“We’ll see how sustainable it is,” says Harger. “Hopefully, things will continue next year rather than it being just a one-year flash in the pan.”
Let’s Hear From You
Skiers in the Northeast are no strangers to Vermont but we found plenty of wonderful golf opportunities during our visit. You can find some fine golf courses in the Green Mountains as well as in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
COVID-19 sucks and a quick three-day/two-night COVID-19 golf trip may be just the ticket to put the quarantine-social distancing blues at bay, at least for a little while. And you don’t necessarily need to hit a bucket-list destination to find a memorable golf course or two. There may be a few right in your own backyard.
Now it’s your turn. Have you taken any COVID-19 golf trips over the summer? What kinds of hidden gems have you discovered?